2018 Grateful 21

Sometime last year I booked tickets to see Ed Sheeran play in Warsaw. I knew nothing of his music. I thought Galway Girl was a song he covered rather than wrote. But the hype that surrounded the announcement of his European Tour – which by the way sold out in record time with extra nights added in a number of cities, including Warsaw – made me curious. And I had friends in Warsaw whom I hadn’t see in a long time so it all worked out.

Fast forward through the intervening months and it came time to book train tickets and make the trip. My friends, in the meantime, had absconded to Zanzibar and had it been easy to sell the tickets, I’d have done so. But our names were on them. And transferring them to someone else had to be done in person – so I’d have to go to Warsaw anyway. So we went.

The National Stadium (PGE Narodowy) is a massive venue, holding some 58,145 (official for football matches) / 56,826 (UEFA capacity) / 72,900 (concerts) punters. The back half of the seating wasn’t open but the floor was rammed with teenagers who had queued since 1 pm for a 5 pm admission and an 8.45pm appearance. They wanted to be up front and centre. Us? We had seated tickets in the rafters and were in no rush anywhere.

Had I done my homework, I’d have known his stage time was 8.45 to 11 pm. I incorrectly assumed he’d appear at 8 pm (it was a Sunday night), so we got there about 7.30 pm in time to catch the last of his warm-up acts, a gal by the name of Anne-Marie. To give the girl her due, she can carry a tune. But when she brought out the vodka (Polish of course) to do shots with her band to mark the end of a very successful tour, I was less than impressed. Really? With a multitude of impressionable teens in the audience, what was the message? Cool to do shots? Okay, I know they’re probably all drinking anyway, but I’m of the mind that stars with a young following have a responsibility to show some decent example. Yep – I was one of the oldest there.

When our boy Ed didn’t show to my schedule, I started to get a tad upset. And when he eventually sauntered on, without a care in the world, I was on the verge of seething. But then he started to play.

Now, as regular readers will know, I can’t hold a tune to save my life so I’m won’t even begin to comment on how good, bad, or indifferent he is as a musician. But as an entertainer, he has it nailed. Just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation, coupled with some funny insights in to the 2% of the audience that were there under duress (reluctant boyfriends and super dads) endeared him to my cynical self. The guy has class. And he described me to a T. We’re quite alike apparently when we’re at gigs. Ed and me. Everything goes on in our heads – not a hint of enjoyment shows on the outside. But, hey, anyone who can quieten a crowd of 72k screaming teens gets my vote for audience control.

The National Stadium doesn’t have the greatest sound system in the world – either that or Ed’s diction is a tad off. Some of the lyrics were difficult to make out but the crowd didn’t seem to care. They sang along. Every word. Every single word. Except for that one quiet song when he told them to sssh. And I think it was during that song (whatever it was) that some young lad up in front got down on bended knee and proposed to his girlfriend. It takes all sorts.

Ed Sheeran Concert WarsawCigarette lighters are a thing of the past. Now it’s flashlights on mobile phones. And the Warsaw lot were organised enough to have white lights on the top tier and red ones on the lower one – creating a waving Polish flag. The flashlight effect was given a flickering look by holding up sheets of white A4 paper in front of their phones. From my vantage point, it was quite spectacular (ok, so not everyone was in on it, but it did look great). When he had them wave and pump their arms, the mosh pit looked like a sea of worms. For a minute, I felt queasy.

Knowing Poniatowski bridge (Most Poniatowskiego) over the Vistula River would be closed before the gig ended and that 72 000+ people would flood out of the stadium starting from when he played his last song, we left early. Just two songs early, mind you, but that didn’t stop the wave of sympathy from the young ones. No matter. The music was so loud, Ed followed us across the bridge towards the Centre so we missed nothing but the hassle.

I enjoyed it. Our Ed’s done well for himself. I like the fact that his first support band were some Polish friends he’d roomed with when he was 18. I like that he’s engaged to his high-school sweetheart. And I like the fact that it’s him, his guitar, and his customised looping machine that makes all the noise. Everything we heard, he assured us, was live. The bit about him being homeless has been exaggerated. In his book, he explains:

There was an arch outside Buckingham Palace that has a heating duct and I spent a couple of nights there. That’s where I wrote the song Homeless and the lines ‘It’s not a homeless night for me, I’m just home less than I’d like to be.’

I caught Jamie Fox talking about him on the Graham Norton Show. And I liked his story, too.

It worked out well. It was a fitting end to a good weekend. I won’t be buying a CD or downloading him any time soon, but I will be in danger of singing along. For a young fellah who struggled like many others to make his mark on the world, the boy’s done good. And he’s still a nice lad. Lots to be grateful for there.

 

 

Gained in translation

Why doesn’t translating ‘tomorrow week’ as ‘holnap hét’ work? Tomorrow = holnap. Week = hét. Admittedly, tomorrow week might be an Irish expression to begin with but hey, my brand of logic wonders why direct translations don’t make sense. I know they presuppose knowledge of English so that the hearer can translate the Hungarian directly back into English to see what I intended to say in the first place. It’s no wonder I’m linguistically challenged.

IMG_3297 (600x800)IMG_3320 (800x593)IMG_3325 (800x600)IMG_3308 (600x800)I was highly amused at the liquor stores, offlicences, bottle shops – call them what you will – in Kraków. Multicoloured shop fronts emblazoned with  the word Alkohole. What a great word. Apparently it translates into alcohols but all I saw was an alko hole. A little English is a dangerous thing.

The streets of Kraków have yet to be taken over by the chain stores so prominent in other cities in Europe. The slow creep is underway but so far, much of the area surrounding the main square is populated with cafés, bars, restaurants, and boutique shops that give the city its  charm. Elsewhere, unique fronts speak to the quirkiness that lies just beneath the surface and to the art scene that sets it apart. It’s a walkable city, with good shoes and decent weather. And once you have your bearings, it’s probably best done without a map. That way you get lost and happen across some of the more unusual streets and restaurants, the local elements that are still going strong in the face of relentless tourism.

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IMG_3348 (600x800)The city is full of remnants of times past. Places of interest are well signposted and signposted in English, too. Someone was thinking of the tourist dollar. It’s steeped in history. The cobblestone streets add to the sense of being in another age and the horse-drawn carriages ambling along are not quite as twee as they could be. They sort of fit. I remembered very little from my last trip so while there was a smattering of familiarity, it was like visiting for the first time.
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IMG_3311 (600x800) I could have spent  a whole day popping in and out of the various outlet boutiques selling off samples by famous labels. Or browsing through the bookshops. Or trying on hats in the milliners. As it was, I spent an hour in a bead/jewelry shop that had every possible sort of necklace and accessory you might want. And don’t get me started on the shoes and bags. I don’t remember Kraków as a shopping destination but it’s in my diary now as one to revisit when I have both time and money.

IMG_3455 (800x600)My guide recommended a restaurant in the Jewish Quarter – a local one that has been around for years. One her friends frequent. She much preferred a ribs joint near the main square that was popular with tourists – a qualification that was enough to send me in the opposite direction. She said it was ‘fatty’ which I took for having lots of meat on the menu. I ventured inside and was welcomed immediately by a complimentary bowl of sour barley soup with boiled eggs. It was an order-at-the-counter, pay, pickup and bring-your-dishes-back-when-you’re-done sort of place. And I was the only tourist. I can’t tell you how happy that made me feel. Odd, considering I was a tourist myself. I ordered a full serving of the sour barley soup to go with some breaded pork and buttered spinach. Excellent. Truly excellent.  One of many reasons to go back to Kraków. And go back I will.

Losing time

Many years ago, when I was living in London, I decided that the best thing about living in that particular capital was the number of cheap flights out of it. Every second paycheck, I’d pick a city I’d never been to before and take off. This wasn’t today or yesterday; it was long before digital cameras and blogging. I got holidays, too, of course, and one year I took a week or maybe ten days to visit Poland. I flew into Warsaw and then took the train to Kraków via Częstochowa. [I was toying with the idea of doing a series on the Black Madonnas of Europe and the Black Madonna of Częstochowa was high on my list. I have clear recollections of creeping around the shrine on my knees and feeling every inch of it.]

On the train to Kraków, I met an American woman (the lovely SvN) who told me about the chakra at Wawel Cathedral. That corner of the courtyard where time takes on new meaning.  She drew me a map and explained where I’d find it. Chances were that some yoga-head would be meditating there and would mark the spot.

IMG_3420 (600x800)IMG_3421 (800x600)I found it.  I can squat. I can’t sit cross-legged. So I compromised and sat with my back against the wall. I tried to tune out the world but nothing happened. I did manage to clear my mind for what seemed like a second or three and then the world came flooding back in. I got up, frustrated. Annoyed with myself that I couldn’t still my mind, that I couldn’t meditate. I checked my watch. Two hours had passed. Those few seconds were more than seconds. For two hours I’d been somewhere else – and I’ve no idea where.

IMG_3427 (800x600)This trip, I wanted to go back, to see if the same thing would happen. I took a taxi from my workshop and headed to the Cathedral. But it was closed. I got to wander the grounds for about ten minutes, before I was shepherded out. I didn’t make it inside the inner quad at all.

But I read up on it and it appears that sitting next to or even touching the wall is frowned upon.  In Your Pocket has this to say:

Castle staff […] consider the legend a nuisance and have done everything they can to deflect attention away from Wawel’s famous corner, including putting up a sign asking people to refrain from touching it (not working, fellas), roping it off, putting museum exhibits over top of it and having a guard stand nearby – as was the case during our last visit. Some people credit the chakra with protecting the city through its tumultuous history, but Wawel tour guides are stricken from speaking about the chakra stone, as you’ll quickly learn if you broach the topic with one. The Catholic Church and its firm followers also dismiss the legend of the chakra, despite the fact that its location at the most important spiritual site in the country (Wawel Cathedral), could just as easily be seen as a compliment. Whatever the case, there are indeed strange and powerful forces at work on Wawel Hill.

IMG_3432 (800x600)What I did get though was a lovely view of the city, an overview of a Kraków evening.  The boats moored on the Vistula River. The clubs and restaurants with their neon lights. The bridges that join the Jewish Quarter to the old Ghetto. And the dragon.

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IMG_3437 (600x800)Eons ago, when Poland was still a baby, there was a small village on the banks of the River Vistula, close to Wawel hill. At the base of the hill was a deep cave in which, rumour had it, a fierce dragon lived. The young people in the village didn’t believe the stories. They thought they knew better than their elders. One day some of them decided to go exploring. They found their way into the cave and disturbed the sleeping dragon who was rightly upset. Every day from then on, the dragon would steal a sheep or a young virgin and eat them. The village was in turmoil and lived in fear. But there was a hero – there’s always a hero. And depending on what you read, this hero was (a) a wise man, (b) the village shoemaker, or (c) the shoemaker’s apprentice. Whatever his job, we can agree that his name was Krac. Anyway, the clever chap mixed a thick yellow sulfur paste and painted it on some sheep. He then herded the sheep within sight of the dragon who did as dragons do and ate them.  The sulfur kicked in and the dragon, dying of thirst, went to the river and drank so much water, he exploded. The village was saved. Krac was the hero and the city that grew up around the hill was called Kraków.

You learn something new every day.

2016 Grateful 44

My grandfather had a chair by the fire that no one else sat in. My dad has one, too. I have my corner of the couch, the cushion perfectly moulded to me. I have my seat at the dining table, from which I hold court. When I lived in my cabin in Alaska, I’d alternate between the rocking chair and the recliner, depending on the mood, on what I was reading, on the time of day. I’ve had favourite park benches, rocks, and steps. I like to sit. I like chairs.

IMG_3329 (800x600)IMG_3332 (800x591)When it comes to monuments, I’ve been fascinated by the chair with the broken leg that sits outside the UN in Geneva.But this fascination paled when I was shown the chairs that sit in Plac Bohaterów Getta Square in the heart of the old ghetto in Kraków . My guide told me there were 65 in all, one for each 1000 Jews who died in the Holocaust. But I think she may have been confusing this with the monument in ulica Szeroka.  I didn’t count. But I did check it out and the memorial, designed by local architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak actually includes 70 chairs in total, one for each of the 1000 jews who lived in the ghetto. Who’s to say. And does it matter? There are 33 tall ones (1.4 m high) in the square itself and 37 smaller ones (1.2 m high) that sit around it. The larger ones are illuminated, which must make it pretty special to see at night. Passengers waiting to catch a bus or tram sit on the chairs as they wait a different transportation to that experienced by those jews deported from this very place. Eerie. I wonder how many stop to think or do they even see them any more?

IMG_3331 (800x600)As memorials go, these empty chairs are amongst the most poignant I’ve seen. A similar theme was used in the aftermath of the Oklahoma Bombing in the USA where 168 empty chairs stand witness to the 168 lives lost in that atrocity. I was in Oklahoma a few years ago and am raging I didn’t do my homework. Next time.

IMG_3339 (800x600)IMG_3342 (800x600)Still on the same side of the river in an area that has seen major redeveopments in recent years, sits Schindler’s factory, made famous by Spielberg’s 1993 movie Schindler’s List  about Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member, who saved the lives of over 1000 Jews by recruiting them to work in his factory. I stopped outside but didn’t go in. Sometimes it can all be too much. And it isn’t going anywhere. I think that when the Holocaust and its remembrance is crammed into a one-day tour of the city, it loses something. Yes, better remembered in any way than forgotten entirely but time is needed to reflect, to consider what happened, and to offer a prayer that nothing like it will ever happen again.

I challenge anyone to walk through the ghetto, sit on a chair, stand outside the factory door and not feel the urge to give thanks for simply being alive.

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Chewing the cholent

It was a flying visit. I didn’t have much time. In Wednesday evening, work Thursday, fly out Friday morning. I wasn’t there to sightsee but it’d be a cold day in hell before I’d visit somewhere and not get to see something.

IMG_3283 (800x600)IMG_3289 (600x800)It’s been years since I was last in Kraków. I was looking forward to seeing how much, if anything, I remembered of the city. I had vague recollections of a large central square edged with expensive cafés. That time, I had taken the train from Warsaw with the sole of aim of visiting Auschwitz, Birkenau, and the salt mines. All three were quite something with the first two taking all of my energy and most of my will to live. There is something quite unsettling about seeing mounds of human hair, piles of unmatched shoes, heaps of suitcases and knowing the fate their owners met. I remember visiting the bookshop wanting to buy camp memoirs written by a man and by a woman, so that I’d get both perspectives. The lady in the shop wouldn’t let me go before I bought a third book – written by one of the SS guards.

IMG_3348 (600x800)Having done the tour of the Auschwitz, I was dazed, upset, and not a little shocked. I went on to Birkenau and as I walked down to the end of the camp, the three books getting heavier and heavier in my backpack, I heard myself complaining and cursing life. No sooner had I vented did I realise that the hundreds and thousands who had trodden this same path before me never had the chance to curse again. I was a sobering thought. This was back in 2004 (I think).

I recall overhearing a young Polish chap explain to a couple of English nurses on the train that Poland didn’t have  Jewish problem any more. And so this time, when I visited, I saw that the Jewish community is making a comeback of sorts.

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IMG_3371 (800x600)There’s a square (actually a street but it looks like a square) at the heart of it all:  ulica Szeroka. Ringed by restaurants and cafés, it’s also home to the Old Synagogue and the Remuh Synagogue. Today, it’s a hive of activity with plenty to do in the way of socialising.

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IMG_3355 (800x600)IMG_3374 (800x600)Tempted by the Hamsa restaurant that promised both happiness and humus, I couldn’t resist the Dawno Temu Na Kazimierzu (Once upon a time in Kazimierz), with its row of weathered shopfronts, its dark and its dark interior furnished as if it were someone’s living room. Billed as one of the most unusual restaurants in the world, I couldn’t pass it by. The menu was alien to me and yet familiar, a composite of foods that had featured in novels I’d read but had never eaten. Borsch  – a beetroot soup with kolduny (meat filling) or
uszka (mushoom filling). Gefilte fish (minced carp in jelly). Cholent (stew with beans beef, veg, potatoes and groats). There was even Israeli wine on the menu.  I ate well.

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IMG_3368 (800x600)Wandering around afterwards, I happened across a memorial to the
65 000 Polish Jews from Kraków who didn’t live to see the end of the War. It was cold that day – bitterly cold – and the streets were notably empty. I’d imagine though that in the summer, it would be heaving. How does it resonate with the partying masses enjoying their holidays? A thought.

I paid my respects. I stood a while until a recurring thought popped into my head about the millions of other lives lost in the Holocaust that go largely unmentioned. And then I wandered and I wondered.

 

 

 

 

There are no ugly women; just lazy ones

Helena Rubenstein, the world’s first self-made female millionaire, was born in Kraków, Poland, in 1872. She emigrated to Australia in 1902. With no money and little English, she packed a great complexion and jars of face cream in her luggage. When her supply ran out, she started making her own. With all the sheep in Australia, lanolin was in good supply.

By  1908, she was raking it in. She had plans for expansion. Again, on her own dime, in an era where women in business were not financed by banks, she moved to London. She married and had two sons.

In 1912, they all moved to Paris and she opened a salon. She set up a publishing company, too, the one that published Lady Chatterley’s Lover. All sorts of names and notables attended her salon, many of whose notoriety was still in the making. She was known for her dinner parties and her wit.

When WWI broke out, the family moved to New York where she opened her salon in 1915. This would mark the beginning of a lifelong rivalry with Elizabeth Arden, captured on film in The Powder and the Glory. She sold her US business to Lehman Brothers in 1928 for just over $7 million and bought it all back for less than $1 million when the Great Depression hit. From there, it was onwards and upwards.

Her second marriage was to a  Georgian aristocrat 23 years her junior. [That must have been some face cream!] She spent money on art and clothes but took her own lunch to work. She set up foundations, gave scholarships, and employed most of her relatives in the business. She was some woman.

IMG_3361 (800x600)In Kraków last week, I stood outside the house in which she was born. It’s in the Jewish District of Kazimierz and is now a restaurant. Or so I was told. There seems to be a little confusion about exactly where. Earlier in the week, I’d seen the Oscar-nominated Hungarian movie Saul és fia (Son of Saul) so senses were particularly heightened. But Helena Rubenstein escaped before the madness descended on this part of the world. Her reasons for emigrating were most likely economic. And it made me think  of the millions of souls of potential who perished – not just Jews, but Catholics, Roma, artists, intellectuals – millions of lives wasted because of one man’s ideal.

And this made me think about abortion and the screening tests for unborn children and the parents who for better or worse decide whether or not to carry to term babies who are less than perfect. I wonder what Hitler’s mum might have done with the benefit of hindsight. But then the same might be said for Henry Ford – given the number of lives lost to automobile accidents. And my mind took another leap and bounced to risk aversity and how many of us live our lives in fear of things that never happen. And that led to potential and the fulfilling thereof.  Parents reliving their own failed sports careers through their children? Is that right? And then I started on emancipation and the movie My Sister’s Keeper that I’d heard about. A story of a young girl of 12 who’d sued her parents for medical emancipation. They’d had her so that she could be a donor for her sibling. And from there to movies and how they no longer seem to imitate life but take on a life of their own. And what about our constant need to be entertained, and our low boredom thresholds. And why don’t we read any more? Surely a beautiful mind is light years again of a beautiful face – but then beautiful faces are there for the taking – as Rubenstein said – there are no ugly women; just lazy ones.  I wonder what she’d have made of me ….

PS – Son of Saul – worth seeing – a whole new take on life in concentration camps. Playing in Toldi with subtitles 8.45 Mondays and Tuesdays.